Born May 11, 1885, in New Orleans (some sources say Donaldsville), LA; died April 8, 1938, in Savannah, GA.
Billed as the "World's Greatest Cornetist," Joe "King" Oliver reigned as the premier trumpeter of jazz during the early 1920s. The famed musical mentor of Louis Armstrong, Oliver is perhaps best remembered for bringing the young New Orleans hornman to Chicago in 1922. With Armstrong on second cornet, Oliver performed double-cornet breaks that sent shock waves through the jazz world. Years later, Armstrong paid tribute to his elder, noting, as quoted in the liner notes to King Oliver "Papa Joe" (1926-1928), that "if it had not been for Joe Oliver, jazz would not be what it is today."
Joseph "King" Oliver was born around New Orleans, Louisiana, on May 11, 1885. Over the next several years, his family moved a number of times, primarily throughout New Orleans's Garden District, a section filled with large antebellum homes and high-walled courtyards. After the death of his mother in 1900, Oliver was raised by his older half-sister, Victoria Davis. He first performed on cornet with a children's brass band under the direction of a man named Kenhen, who frequently took the ensemble on out-of-state tours. While on the road with the band, Oliver got into a fight that left him with a noticeable scar over his left eye. (The white cataract on the same eye was supposedly caused by a childhood accident.)
Like most New Orleans musicians in the early twentieth century, Oliver could not support himself solely by music. While working as a butler, his employers allowed him to hire an occasional substitute so that he could play with local brass bands that performed at picnics, funerals, and dances in the area. For over a decade, he appeared with a number of march-oriented brass bands, including the Eagle Band, the Onward Brass Band, the Melrose Brass Band, the Magnolia Band, the Original Superior, and Allen's Brass Band. As a member of these ensembles, Oliver established connections with a number of musicians, many of whom, like fellow Melrose bandmate Honore Dutrey, would become members of his famous Chicago-based group.
In the evenings, Oliver played at cabarets and dance halls throughout New Orleans. Early in his career, he performed with pianist Richard M. Jones's Four Hot Hounds at the Abadie Cabaret. In 1911 society bandleader-violinist A. S. Piron took over leadership of the Olympia Band and hired Oliver to fill the band's trumpet chair, which was formerly occupied by departing leader Freddie Keppard. Over the next decade, Oliver worked at Billy Phillip's 101 Ranch and at Storyville establishments like Pete Lala's Cafe and the Big 25. In an interview for Jazz Panorama, a resident of New Orleans named Edmond Souchon recalled seeing King Oliver outside the Big 25: "I'll never forget how big and tough he looked! His brown derby was tilted low over one eye, his shirt collar was open at the neck, and a bright red undershirt peeked out at the V. Wide suspenders held up an expanse of trousers of unbelievable width."
Oliver's musical reputation soon began to match his imposing stature, and by 1917 he became a formidable figure on the New Orleans music scene. His forceful melodic phrasing and use of assorted trumpet mutes earned him the title of "King." In his autobiography Pops Foster, New Orleans bassist Foster related how "Joe had all kinds of things he put on his horn. He used to shove a kazoo in the bell to give it a different effect." Because of Oliver's unorthodox use of objects to mute his horn, trumpeter Mutt Carey, as quoted in Hear Me Talkin' to Ya, referred to Oliver as a "freak trumpeter" who "did most of his playing with cups, glasses, buckets, and mutes."
Along with his passion for music, Oliver possessed an equally voracious appetite for food. His diet consisted of sugar sandwiches made from whole loaves of bread, which he chased down with a pot of tea or a pitcher of sugar water. Foster recalled how Oliver would eat six hamburgers and a quart of milk in one sitting or how--with one dip of a finger--he would pull out an entire pouch of tobacco and chew it while blowing his horn. Affectionately known as "Papa Joe" by musicians, he was also called "Tenderfoot" because of the painful corns that covered his feet.
In 1918 bassist Bill Johnson invited Oliver to join his band at Chicago's Royal Gardens. He accepted the offer and left for Chicago with clarinetist Jimmy Noone. Housed in a large building on 31st Street, the Royal Gardens--soon to be renamed the Lincoln Gardens--had an upstairs balcony and a spotlighted crystal chandelier that reflected on the dance floor. While playing the Gardens, Oliver doubled in another group at the Dreamland Cafe led by Lawrence Duhe. By 1920 he was leading King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band at the Dreamland and playing a second engagement from one till six in the morning at a State Street gangster hangout. During the following year, his band played a brief engagement at the Pergola Dance Pavilion in San Francisco. From the Pergola, the band traveled southward to perform in Los Angeles.
Returning to Chicago in 1922, Oliver booked his Creole Jazz Band at the Lincoln Gardens. That autumn he decided to add a second cornet to his band and sent a telegram to Louis Armstrong in New Orleans, inviting him to join the group. A devout student of the Oliver style, Armstrong went north to play with the band in 1922. In Selections from the Gutter, Oliver's drummer, Baby Dodds, recalled the impact of Armstong's arrival: "I was pleased because I had a chance to work with Louis again. Our music was appreciated in Chicago and it made you free and easy. We played so much music that I dreamed about it at night and woke up thinking about it." Musicians from Paul Whiteman to Guy Lombardo came to study the music of Oliver's ensemble. Some musicians even took notes on their shirt sleeves.
"From the testimony of musicians (and fans) who heard the 1922-1924 Oliver band live," wrote Dan Morganstern in the liner notes to Louis Armstrong: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1923-1934, "its most potent attraction was the unique cornet team." Though Oliver and Armstrong's double-breaks appeared to exhibit a natural sense of spontaneity and interplay, they "were in fact worked out in a most ingenious way: at a given point in the preceding collective band chorus, Oliver would play what he intended to use as his part in the break, and Armstrong, lightning- quick on the up-take, would memorize it and devise his own second part--which always fit to perfection." As Armstrong explained in his autobiography, Louis Armstrong--A Self Portrait, "Whatever Mister Joe played, I just put notes to it trying to make it sound as pretty as I could. I never blew my horn over Joe Oliver at no time unless he said, 'Take it!' Never. Papa Joe was a creator--always some little idea--and he exercised them beautifully."
"If it had not been for Joe Oliver, jazz would not be what it is today." --Louis Armstrong
On March 31, 1923, the Oliver Band entered the Gennet Recording Company Studios in Richmond, Indiana. Along with trumpeter Armstrong, clarinetist Johnny Dodds, pianist Lil Hardin, bassist Bill Johnson, and drummer Baby Dodds, Oliver created some of the most memorable sides in jazz history. The Gennet session produced several classics, including the legendary "Dipper Mouth Blues," a title taken from Armstrong's nickname. In describing the Gennet sides, Martin Williams wrote in Jazz Masters of New Orleans, "They do not have merely historical or documentary interest, and their emotional impact cuts across the years." Williams added, "The most immediately impressive characteristic of the music of King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band is its unity, the wonderful integration of parts with which the individual players contribute to a dense, often heterophonic texture of improvised melodies. The tempos are right, the excitement of the music is projected with firmness and ease, and the peaks and climaxes come with musical excitement rather than personal frenzy, with each individual in exact control of what he is about."
In 1924 Oliver's band toured the Orpheum Theater circuit throughout the Midwest, including stops in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Urged on by his then- wife and fellow Oliver bandmember Lil Hardin, Armstrong left the group in June to join the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. Then, on Christmas Eve of the same year, the burning of the Lincoln Gardens resulted in the disbanding of Oliver's Creole Jazz Band. Oliver took a temporary job at the Plantation Club with Dave Peyton's Symphonic Syncopators. Soon thereafter, he brought a number of talented New Orleans musicians--including reedmen Albert Nicholas and Barney Bigard, drummer Paul Barbarin, and trumpeter Tommy Ladnier--into Peyton's band. By 1925 Oliver had taken over the band. Billed as the Dixie Syncopators, the band was reorganized; with the addition of three saxophones, the Syncopators began a two-year job at the Plantation Club.
Despite the band's wealth of talent, the Dixie Syncopators experienced problems as they expanded. After 1925 the group relied primarily on stock arrangements. In the studio, the larger band--once able to rely on intuitive group discipline--faced the problem of allowing for more individuality among members. As Williams observed in Jazz Masters of New Orleans, "The Syncopators' rhythms are usually heavy, the horns and percussion are often unsure, the ensembles are sometimes sloppy. One passage will swing beautifully, the next will flounder." On record the band did experience occasional moments of brilliance, especially with the presence of saxophonist-arranger Billy Paige, who contributed to the 1926 sides "Too Bad" and "Snag It."
After the police closed down the Plantation Club in 1927, Oliver and his band played short engagements in Milwaukee and Detroit. These appearances were followed by a two-week stint at the Savoy Ballroom in New York City. Though the newspapers hailed Oliver's visit, the Syncopators did not take the city by storm. The band received a warm reception, but Oliver's invasion of the East had come too late. After the arrival of Armstrong and others, New York City's music scene began to lose interest in authentic New Orleans music. Though he was offered a job at the soon-to- be famous nightspot the Cotton Club, Oliver, dissatisfied with the financial arrangement, declined the engagement. The position went to a young pianist named Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington.
After the visit to New York, Oliver sustained himself and his bands with money from a recording contract he had established with the Victor company in 1928. Unlike his earlier label, Vocalion-Brunswick, which allowed him a great deal of creative freedom, Victor limited Oliver's creative input. By 1930 the contract with Victor had expired, and the group disbanded.
In 1931 Oliver assembled another band composed of younger musicians and toured the South and Southwest. For the next several years, he struggled with personnel changes, broken-down buses, canceled engagements, and jobs played without compensation. A proud man, Oliver always made sure his band took the stage neatly dressed and organized. But behind the scenes, his health began to decline. By 1935 he could no longer play the trumpet: pyorrhea had caused the loss of his teeth and painful bleeding of his gums. The next year, he moved to Savannah, Georgia. Unable to play his horn, he is said to have appeared at his last engagements sitting in a chair--often wearing slippers. Bankrupt and nearly forgotten, Oliver spent the last year of his life in Savannah running a fruit stand and working as a poolhall janitor. He died in Savannah on April 8, 1938.
Oliver's body was taken to New York for burial, where his stepsister spent her rent money to pay for the funeral--an occasion that attracted Armstrong and a number of musicians who never forgot their debt to Papa Joe Oliver.
With time, perhaps Oliver's musical legacy will overshadow the story of his tragic downfall and early death--and once again bring recognition to a man who ruled New Orleans and Chicago's South Side as the king of the jazz trumpet. Though his recordings remain crude by today's standards, they represent moving portraits of sound that provide the listener with audible passages into American cultural history. As musician and writer Gunther Schuller wrote in Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development, "Oliver's Creole Jazz Band represents one of jazz's great achievements. It is worthy of our close attention, not only for its own merits, but for the lessons it can still teach us."
by John Cohassey
King Oliver's Career
Cornetist, trumpeter. Began playing in children's brass band; while a youngster worked as a yard boy and later as a butler; performed with a number of New Orleans brass bands, including the Eagle, Onward, Melrose, Magnolia, and Original Superior; played at nightspots in and around Storyville, LA; went to Chicago with Jimmy Noone to join bassist Bill Johnson's band and doubled in a band led by Lawrence Duhe, 1918; led own band at the Dreamland, 1920; took his band to San Francisco to play the Pergola Dance Pavilion, 1921, and also played gigs in Los Angeles; returned to Chicago in April of 1922 and led own Creole Jazz Band at the Lincoln Gardens; recruited Louis Armstrong to play in the band, 1922; briefly joined Dave Peyton's Symphonic Syncopators, 1924; led his Dixie Syncopators at Plantation Cafe, 1925-27; performed on recordings with Clarence Williams, 1928; formed another band and toured, 1930-37.
- Selective Works
- King Oliver and His Dixie Syncopators: Sugar Foot Stomp, MCA & GRP Records, 1992.
- Jazz Classics in Digital Stereo: Vol. 1, New Orleans, Smithsonian Folkways.
- Jazz Classics in Digital Stereo: Vol. 2, Chicago, Smithsonian Folkways.
- King Oliver "Papa Joe" (1926-1928), Decca.
- Louis Armstrong and King Oliver, Milestone Records.
- RCA-Victor Jazz: The First Half Century--The Twenties through the Sixties, RCA.
- The Riverside History of Classic Jazz, Riverside.
- Sound of the Trumpets, GRP Records.
- Armstrong, Louis, Louis Armstrong--A Self Portrait: An Interview by Richard Merryman, Eakins Press, 1971.
- Foster, Pops, Pops Foster: The Autobiography of a New Orleans Jazzman As Told to Tom Stoddard, University of California Press, 1971.
- Hear Me Talkin' to Ya: The Story of Jazz As Told by the Men Who Made It, edited by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff, Dover Publications, 1955.
- Jazz Panorama: From the Birth to Dixieland to the Latest "Third Stream" Innovations--The Sounds of Jazz and the Men Who Make Them, edited by Martin Williams, Collier Books, 1964.
- Schuller, Gunther, Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development, Oxford University Press, 1986.
- Selections from the Gutter: Jazz Portraits from the "Jazz Record," edited by Art Hodes and Chadwick Hansen, 1977.
- Williams, Martin, Jazz Masters of New Orleans, Macmillan, 1967.
- Williams, Kings of Jazz: King Oliver, A. S. Barnes and Company, 1961.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from the liner notes to Louis Armstrong: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1923-1934, by Dan Morganstern, Columbia/Legacy, 1994, and the notes to King Oliver "Papa Joe" (1926-1928), Decca, by Panassie Hugues.